Science Fiction

The Jackie Onassis Swamp-Buggy Concerto

By Sean Williams
3,448 words · 13-minute reading time
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"Music is a phenomenon common to all known sapient forms of life. The details of rhythm, harmony and melody may vary from culture to culture, and sometimes do so quite dramatically, but the underlying principles remain constant. Provided only that an auditory sense exists, Music at its fundamental level is as prevalent as life itself."

—Schubert Dandrough, Music and the Mind

 

It wasn't hard to rig the dropships at all. me, i thought it'd be a
touch tricky, what with them being designed for more Earth-like environments and all, but no. The problems just ironed themselves out, with a little encouragement.

First we sealed all the lower hatches and vents, welded them shut and layered the bottom hull with carbon-fibre mats. Then we narrowed the outlet vanes by thirty percent and mixed the reaction-mass with water, for a better thrust 'spike', as Goose called it. More kick is what he meant. It was a little more difficult when it came to streamlining the nose profile, but we managed it in the end by removing all external projections, including weapons and antennae. Each dropship already had an armoured hull, standard for pioneer missions, so only the skeletons needed reinforcement; solid steel girders at every stress-point did the job—although we nearly gutted the mothership getting it right. Shame about that, but it had to be exactly right or else it wouldn't work.

The fins came last. We thought they were a good idea at the time, but in retrospect I guess they weren't.

We ended up with four weird-looking dropships. Like fish, I swear. Great big goldfish four hundred metres long, with flat, black bellies and thick torpedo-fins sticking out of the tails; bug-eyed guppies designed to skim the surface of a methane planet. We re-christened them 'buggies' and gave them individual names: Firebird, Sharkey, Flipper, and Jackie Onassis II. The last after the mothership, of course.

We drew lots and my number came up amongst the hundred for Firebird. Goose drew the same, and I took that as a good omen. The song in my head sounded real strong as we checked, rechecked and fired the engines.

The four buggies, filled with their cat-calling crews, left the skeletal framework of the Jackie Onassis and aimed for separate descent corridors. I was on Firebird's first-lieutenant's desk manning the new hydraulics, and she didn't miss a beat. She handed real well. I was whistling as we spiralled slowly into the thin atmosphere of Medusa.

I remembered how bored we had all been with the mission, prior to our discovery. Standard military recon, taking photos and distributing names. Very dull; not at all like the old books and movies. As soon as we approached close enough to see the moon properly, however, we'd known what to do, and the music made it easier.

"Name that tune," said Goose with a cheesy grin on his face, from his position behind Firebird's makeshift helm.

"Beats me," I said. "But I got it bad."

"Sounds a bit like a Bach violin concerto," said Charmers, on comm.

"Or Beethoven," put in Stan.

"I hear Zappa," said Goose.

"Who?" Bach and Beethoven I'd heard of—without actually hearing, if you know what I mean—but not Zappa.

"Late Twentieth. Doesn't matter." Goose dropped the controls, put Firebird on auto. "All that matters is winning!"

We agreed whole-heartedly—all except poor old Symonds. He was tone-deaf, with not a drop of music in his entire body. He looked pretty pathetic where we'd tied him up at the back of Firebird's bridge, still trussed in a strait-jacket like a chicken ready for stuffing—the closest thing to a mascot we had. But I had to admire his guts, or whatever it was he had.

"You're all crazy," he moaned, shaking his head at our antics. "You've killed the ship, and now you're going to kill all of us as well."

"Not all," said Goose, shutting him up with a look. "That's not the deal. The winners are exempt."

"How do you know?"

"Because I do. We all do."

"But—"

"Can it, would you? We've got work to do."

Firebird touched down in a shower of spray, dipping its starboard fin into the muck and 'accidentally' drenching Jackie-O II. Our reaction vents left a boiling wake behind us as we jockeyed into position. My heart pounded as the four buggies lined up at the starting-line.

Then everyone started singing, and the noise was deafening.

 

"No matter where you go, the relationship between frequencies and the ratios of the primary harmonics are constant—fixed by simple mathematics. The principles of Music, like those of thermodynamics, are immutable throughout the universe."

—Schubert Dandrough, Music and the Mind

 

Medusa was the perfect place for the race. The outermost moon of a dark gas-giant called Krataios, fifth planet of the unmapped Keto system, it was virgin methane swamp, completely covered by a grey-green, sludgy ocean rarely more than two hundred metres deep. The odd purple geyser and orange hot-spot, but that's it. No metals, no rare earths, no fissionables. Other than the indigenous life-forms, there was absolutely nothing worth coming here for.

Apart from the race.

The computer counted us down: "Ten." Our engines spewed steam and heat into the alien environment; Firebird trembled on the brink of breakneck acceleration. "Five." The exchange of voices halted for a split-second and all that could be heard was the music, egging us on. "One." I held my breath.

"Go!"

We surged forward in an explosion of boiling methane, taking the lead immediately. The crew of Flipper tried to challenge, but we cut contemptuously across their bow, forcing them back. The region behind us quickly vanished under a wake of super-heated gases. We rode the tip of a triangular cloud, inside which lurked our enemies, the other buggies. We were off!

"Yee-haw!" screamed Goose as he wrenched at the controls. I manned the hydraulics, singing the battle-song at the top of my voice. It was almost too easy.

For all its modifications, though, the buggy wasn't meant for this kind of thing. Its underbelly bounced and slewed off the alien ocean, skidding sickeningly from side to side. Every time we hit a denser patch, we'd rocket twenty metres into the sky, then crash back down in slow-mo. Goose jockeyed the thrust-vents, fighting as best he could to keep our thrust smooth and regular.

Somehow we held our lead. The other buggies were hard-pressed to catch up our initial burst of speed. Occasionally one would inch closer, trying to find a path through the turbulence of our wake, only to fall back moments later to bide its time, to wait for an opportunity.

We turned at the first marker, a geyser that looked something like a peacock's tail-feather. The second leg was trickier: lots of dodging and weaving. Orders were shouted amongst the crew:

"Starboard reactor overheating! Dampen it fast!"

"Power surge in reactor five! Keep an eye on it!"

"Hull breach on level three! Get those pumps working!"

"Dum-dum-de-DUM-dum-dee!"

"Incoming! Incoming!"

We turned to the scanners as one, our hearts pounding.

The streamlined nose of Sharkey, painted with a ferocious shark's mouth, nudged out of our wake a few kilometres to port. It edged alongside Firebird, grinning malevolently—the first serious threat to our lead we'd had since the beginning of the race. This wasn't a bluff: it was the real thing.

Goose fluttered the drive, made it look like we were turning to starboard. Sharkey swooped after us, closing in to challenge.

At precisely the right moment we dipped to port and poured on the gas. Firebird went into a controlled skid, turning three hundred and sixty degrees without changing course. Our starboard fin raked a vicious line down the hull of the other buggy. The impact was jarring for both ships, but we were ready for it.

Sharkey backed off, lost control and started to roll. With a mighty whoosh of spray, it tumbled end over end and vanished into our roiling wake. A moment later, according to our aft scan, it broke apart, sending fragments bouncing across the grey-green sea.

We all cheered, except for Symonds, who looked like he wanted to be sick.

One down. Two to go.

 

"Communication between species is not always possible, however. If one medium of language has nothing at all in common with another then, regardless of intelligence and motive, little of meaning can be exchanged by either party."

—Schubert Dandrough, Music and the Mind

 

The others weren't far behind as we negotiated the second marker. Jackie-O II and Flipper, riding the slipstream right up Firebird's backside, were relying on us to navigate for them, and it was pissing Goose off no end that we were doing all the hard work, let me tell you.

The course had been mapped from the Jackie-O the day before, but hot-spots, which looked from the surface like low, orange hills, didn't appear on scan, could only be spotted by eye. It was just a matter of time before one crossed our path. In sludge this shallow, anything was possible.

So being in the lead was dangerous. We ran the risk of hitting a relatively solid object and crippling the buggy. As it was, the collision with Sharkey had unsettled some of the systems. The starboard fin was a little warped, which added an undesirable element of drag to our profile.

Since we couldn't rely on brute force to win the day, we were forced to resort to cunning.

"Follow the leader," said Goose, grinning.

Half way through the third leg, a low range of hills appeared forward and to starboard—composition unknown; probably heavier chemicals heated by the core, bubbling to the surface, but there was no way to be sure. A complex chemical analysis was impossible with the buggies stripped of everything but basic scan.

Goose, changing our course gently, nudged us towards them anyway. The other buggies, he hoped, would assume that we were steering to avoid an obstacle and tail along. Why would we possibly head into a hot-spot? We hoped they wouldn't guess.

They didn't. Predictable.

Closer came the orange hills. We were way off course. Still the others followed, like pets on a leash. Nearer.

At the last moment, Goose cut thrust and dipped our nose into the ocean. Firebird screamed and bucked, decelerating in a manner we had not designed her to. Seven of us died in our impact-braces, killed by sheer inertia. Something went crack in the drive chamber.

Jackie-O II and Flipper sped by, shooting out of our wake and into the hills. By the time they realised what had happened it was too late to change course, but they tried anyway.

We didn't stop around to watch. We were already heading back to the third and last marker, picking up speed in fits and starts, when Flipper hit something and blipped out. The surge of song and cheering drowned out any sorrow I might have felt for the loss of my old shipmates.

Our triumph, however, was short-lived.

Jackie-O II's luck held. It passed through the hills unstopped and turned to follow us, making up for lost time with uncanny speed. Within five minutes, it had edged past us, a little battered but structurally intact.

Our cries of victory took on a sombre tone. We were being beaten! The music became mournful.

"Buck up, boys," said Goose over all-stations.

"But we're losing," moaned Charmers.

"The game's not over until the fat lady sings!"

"Hear hear!" I added, trying to force the hydros to function properly, whistling defiantly as I worked.

"You're insane," moaned Symonds. "You sound like someone from a B-grade space opera."

"Shut up, you," said Goose, and hit him across the face.

I turned my eyes back to my station with the song dying in my throat. Symonds hadn't deserved that. Sure, he was being a wet blanket, but that wasn't his fault. On any other occasion I might have taken Goose to task for it. Just then, though, the race was more important.

Symonds watched me closely for five minutes, then turned away when I started singing again, the brief altercation with Goose long forgotten.

 

"The members of some species communicate with each other by sound, some by touch, some by smell. Only a very rare few, those we call the hallucinogenae, are able to communicate by that most perplexing of media: thought itself."

——Schubert Dandrough, Music and the Mind

 

Jackie-O II's raging slipstream engulfed us a short time later, and we were forced to switch to instruments. The wake became less turbulent as time passed, but still our velocity dropped.

"Marker on port," said Goose, and we braced ourselves for the turn. "Last chance to make good coming up!"

We turned.

The last leg was not so much a track as a playing field one hundred klicks across. It had been specified from the start that only one buggy would cross the finish line, so here was where any unresolved scores would be settled. Though the methane surface was restless in the wake of Jackie-O II's passage, we had line-of-sight to most quarters.

But Jackie-O II itself was nowhere to be seen.

"What the . . ?" muttered Goose as he swung Firebird about, searching for a target. Nothing. "They've gone! The cowardly bastards have cheated!"

Stan took a look at the scope. It was still. There was nothing at sea-level within two hundred klicks. The crew muttered amongst themselves in consternation.

"They've lifted off?" I asked, appalled.

"They must've." Goose swung us through another futile turn while I watched the sky nervously, waiting for the fugitive buggy to drop out of it and onto us.

"Not necessarily," said Stan, frowning furiously. "They might have—"

"Target!" screamed Charmers from his station. "Behind us!"

"What?" Goose studied the screen, as did I. Sure enough, there was Jackie-O II, accelerating towards us. The trace had appeared from nowhere. "How the hell?"

Stan almost laughed. "They didn't lift off," he cried, gesturing wildly. "They ducked under! The clever sons of—"

The roar of the drive cut him short.

Goose threw us forward, full-throttle, trying to outrun the approaching buggy. The music surged and Firebird did its level best to meet our demands, which were a lot, considering. Goose jiggled and ducked, making us hard to track. Systems overheated. My hydros were busting at the seams—quite literally—to keep us both afloat and on course.

But we weren't going to make it.

They were going to catch us.

We were going to lose.

They loomed hard on our tail, and Goose swung us violently left. Something went bang, loudly, but we stayed afloat. Firebird splashed away at a sharp tangent. Jackie-O II arced back after us, fighting a war of attrition that only they could win.

"Shit!" Goose was sweating, red-faced. Another lurch. Another near miss.

"We have to do something!" I cried, feeling the music swell painfully in my skull. Dodging wasn't enough. We had to fight!

The third miss was almost too close. The commander of Jackie-O II was getting impatient. I wondered if they had the guts to ram. I wondered if Goose did, too.

He didn't let me down.

We turned about in a slow curve, sending methane spray arcing into the black sky. Jackie-O II headed in the other direction, knowing what we were trying to do.

"They won't," said Stan. "They've got more to lose."

"I know," said Goose, and there was a sudden glint in his eye. "But we've got more to gain."

Symonds stirred in his corner. "Listen to yourself, man! Don't you hear what you're saying? You're talking about killing everyone!"

"Not everyone. Only the ones standing between us and victory."

"Victory?" Symonds snorted. "Some victory. We'll be trapped here forever. Why can't you see what you're doing?"

Watching the two of them argue, I felt myself becoming confused. Half-formed thoughts stirred at the back of my mind, and a sense of uncertainty wormed its way forward.

What, exactly, were we fighting for?

"I know what I'm doing," muttered Goose dangerously, in time with the prevailing tune. "I have a plan."

A surge of hope revitalised my faith in him. A plan! Goose would pull us through. Sure he would. How had I ever doubted him?

"Terrific," said the one dissenting voice in all of the crew. "That makes me feel a whole lot better."

Goose ordered Symonds gagged, and turned back to the controls of the buggy.

We completed our turn at the edge of the playing field and bolted forward with as much thrust as we could muster. Jackie-O II hesitated, then did likewise. The two buggies locked on a nose-to-nose collision course with almost thirty seconds before impact. I knew they'd probably turn aside at the last moment, but part of me hoped they wouldn't. They had the most to lose, as Goose had said.

Half-way in, with Jackie-O II's nose glinting a baleful red in the forward scanners, Goose sent us rolling about our long axis. I clutched the arm of my impact-chair and wondered what the hell he was doing. Was this his plan? To make us all motion-sick? How would that help us? Or had he genuinely lost control? I tried to out-think Goose, but couldn't. The tiny worm of doubt stirred again.

Then the port fin hit the surface—hard—and everything went crazy.

My head snapped back right down my spine. Alarms sounded; red lights flashed. I struggled to regain my senses. Half my board was red-lit. Everything down the port side of the ship was dead. The fin—

The fin was gone!

Goose cursed the buggy as it fought his instructions. The roll slowed. We turned out of our headlong course. Jackie-O II went by on our starboard bow, flashing its lights as though to say, "Chicken! Chicken!" I could almost hear its crew laughing at our cowardice.

Then it hit the wreckage of our port fin.

The rear scanner showed it perfectly. Jackie-O II's nosed dipped suddenly. Its rear end flipped up and over and came down hard, still trying to keep going. The drives ran for a split-second before exploding in a blossom of light.

Metal rained over the boiling methane ocean. As the burning skeleton sank, a towering cloud rose into the sky, like smoke from a pyre.

Symonds spat out his gag. "Oh my God," he cried. "What now?"

We cheered and sang until I thought our throats would burst.

It was almost over.

 

"In order to link two minds, by speech or any other means, we need some aspect that is common to both minds, no matter how far removed they might be by mere details of chemistry and evolution. In the case of the hallucinogenae, where the mind is a transmitter broadcasting like a radio station, music acts as the carrier-wave."

—Schubert Dandrough, Music and the Mind

 

Firebird lasted just long enough to limp over the finish line, accompanied by a symphony of sound. A victory march, fit for we victors.

And then the buggy shut down forever. The music died. Half of the remaining crew mutinied, with Symonds in charge. Some of us, still hypnotised by the fading echoes of song, let them have their way and headed out onto the methane sea with as much as our suits could carry.

When the original Jackie Onassis, the mother-ship, failed to respond to a pulse from Earth, a rescue mission was despatched. I watched the dropships descend with detached interest, overhearing music intended for other ears. Inevitably something went wrong, and the explosions were pretty flowers in a sky of seamless black.

Eventually they cottoned on and sent someone tone-deaf in a single-ship to rescue us. That worked, thank God, although at the time I resisted. I guess I'd been floating around for a month or so before rescue, living off suit-rations, while strange things with transparent tentacles stirred the ocean around me, dismantling Firebird piece by piece and collecting every last scrap of the other buggies. It was only a matter of time before my suit would have warranted attention.

I hear that Symonds received a medal for his role in the mutiny—and I don't begrudge him that. But maybe someone might like to see to having Goose's court-martial overturned. He wasn't to blame for what he did. Any one of us might have done it, although not as well.

I must have been a little screwy myself by the end of it all, but I don't mind. I never once got tired of the sound of my own voice, singing along with the metal-starved children of Medusa.


This story originally appeared in Eidolon.


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